In this episode, I interview Bob Mumgaard, the co-founder & CEO of Commonwealth Fusion Systems.
I was looking forward to this interview for many reasons. I had many questions about fusion, how close it is to primetime, what the benefit to the world would be if it gets there, and what barriers stand in its way. And also about CFS, how it came to be, how it is positioned in the fusion landscape, and where it is in its evolution.
Bob is a great guy, as knowledgeable as they come, and also pretty funny! While the discussion was airy and lighthearted, it was also substantive and he gave an incredibly candid look inside the CFS machine.
I hope you enjoy the show!
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and provide suggestions for future guests or topics you'd like to see covered on the show.
Links for topics discussed in this episode:
Commonwealth Fusion Systems: https://www.cfs.energy/
Light-water Reactor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-water_reactor
Kitty Hawk & The Wright Brothers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wright_brothers
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. Welcome. Today's guest is Bob Mumgaard, the CEO and founder of Commonwealth Fusion Systems. I really enjoyed this chat with Bob. We covered a number of topics, including what drew him to working on fusion technology in the first place; its implications for the world, if it's successful; how that ties into the climate fight; Commonwealth Fusion Systems' approach; where they are today and what's coming next in that phased plan; and what advice he has for anyone and everyone out there who wants fusion to exist, in terms of how they can be most helpful. I found Bob to be a straight shooter, a nice guy, and as sharp as they come. Bob Mumgaard, welcome to the show.
Bob Mumgaard: Glad to be here.
Jason Jacobs: I'm glad to have you. Also, it should be said that I'm still early in my climate journey. I'm five months in. But you were literally one of the first count them on one hand people that I reached out to when I was trying to get smart about this whole side of the world. I didn't have an intro or anything like that, and you're a pretty important guy. To my shock, you took the meeting.
Bob Mumgaard: It's a testament to LinkedIn. I looked you up. I was like, okay, this guy's a serious guy, and I have a general policy of always take the meeting. You never know, right? I'm glad it worked out.
Jason Jacobs: You looked, and you said I'm trying to be the first company to make fusion work, and Jason is a long-time fitness app entrepreneur, so I bet he could add a ton of value for me.
Bob Mumgaard: Hey, we've had a lot of different people come by. A fusion company, you get all sorts of different people. Sometimes it's a total bust, but it's always entertaining, and sometimes it really makes a gem, so it's good.
Jason Jacobs: It is funny. I still don't know that I would add much value to a fusion enterprise, but from spending time with you and Steve and the team, we actually have uncovered some parallels in some weird ways to some of the things that I've done historically.
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. I think it's actually a general theme in the entire climate and energy ecosystem. Everyone's got the same motivations. They've all got different skills, and you've got all these different applications. It all sort of sorts out. But it's usually you throw people from any type of energy companies together, and they're going to find parallels.
Jason Jacobs: Well, at any rate, I'm glad you're here. We've got a lot to talk about. Maybe for starters ... Just given that, I mean, we've had several discussions now, but our listeners might not have that same benefit. So what is Commonwealth Fusion Systems?
Bob Mumgaard: So Commonwealth Fusion Systems, it's a fusion company. It's in Massachusetts, so it's commonwealth fusion. We make systems, so the name is self-explanatory, except for that part about fusion. Most people don't really think about that very much, but that's actually the energy source that powers the stars. It's the energy source that is the original solar energy source, combining light elements to make heavier ones. So it's like running nuclear power in reverse. People have long wanted to make that into a reality on Earth, not just in space, and we're a company that's trying to be the first to do that.
Jason Jacobs: When you say people have long wanted to make that a reality, have you also been one of those people that have long wanted to make that a reality? Or is this a newer thing for you?
Bob Mumgaard: Well, it depends on how you call it new. So I'm definitely not one of those people that when I was, oh, in fifth grade I just knew I was going to do fusion. There are people that are like that.
Jason Jacobs: When I was in fifth grade, I knew I was going to be a podcaster.
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah, right, I'm sure. But there's definitely people that have a passion for fusion itself, and they have long, long had it. For me, it wasn't really that. I was really interested in science and engineering, and I ended up doing fusion, actually, because it was the right sort of lab and a really cool scale where you get to work on these big sci-fi machines. But as that was happening, the climate problem was becoming more and more apparent.
Jason Jacobs: When was this, Bob?
Bob Mumgaard: This was 2008. I was working in fusion, basically, the 2008 clean tech rise. At that time, fusion was not ready to be a part of that conversation, but it really raised the profile in my mind of how important it was to contribute to the climate solution. I was doing a PhD, so we finished that. That whole time, we were building a team and looking for the right opportunity to take fusion to the next level to actually put it into the climate conversation. We found how to do that eventually, and that's what we're doing now.
Jason Jacobs: So when you were first looking at fusion, it was actually climate change that led you to sink your teeth in further. Is that-
Bob Mumgaard: I was doing it because it was cool tech, cool science, but it was climate change that really led to getting really deep into it and trying to organize people and resources and then a technical plan to accelerate it.
Jason Jacobs: What is it about climate change and/or what is it about fusion that led you to believe that fusion would be a big potential part of the climate change solution?
Bob Mumgaard: To me, the climate problem, the thing that scares me is the scale. So if you look at the climate and you look at what we've done to date to it, 400 parts per million, and you run that-
Jason Jacobs: I think even higher.
Bob Mumgaard: Oh, man. If you run that back in time, what you see is energy is the largest market that humanity's ever built. It's grown the fastest, and it goes back hundreds of years, but really exponential in the last 50. It's responsible for all the good stuff that the world's had. So you've got this thing that's doing really good stuff. It's pulling people out of poverty. It's giving people access to quality of life, but, at the same time, it's got this tradeoff, this knife's edge that it's ruining the atmosphere. It's endangering everyone in the world over the next 50 years.
Jason Jacobs: But that's only if you don't believe that that's a bunch of bunk, right?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. Well, as a scientist, PhD, that's one of the first things they teach you is the scientific method, and [inaudible 00:06:04] pretty straightforward that's happening. It's happening faster, and it's unpredictable, and that's really scary.
Jason Jacobs: I heard recently that there's 97% scientific consensus on the fact that ... what you just said, that we have a carbon problem and that it is manmade and that we are on a path of climate ... really bad stuff if we stay on the course we're on. That's the climate piece. Now talk to me about the fusion piece.
Bob Mumgaard: So if you look at how big both sides of that coin are, so, one, how big the opportunity has been that energy has given the world, and at how big the problem it's created, it means you've got to go and find a big solution. The idea that you're going to do a small solution to that is pretty hard to fathom. It's not going to be some incremental adjustment to our system. It's going to have to be a big, big adjustment. If you want big adjustments, where you look is to disruptive technologies. You don't look to changing one little thing out. You look to changing into an entirely new thing, right?
Bob Mumgaard: Fusion offers the opportunity to do that. It's this technology that really, if you can get it to work, splits that equation up between goodness and badness, because here you have this thing that is a power source that you can run continuously, you can put anywhere. It's super, super power dense, the amount of power that you get out of a gas plant but without the gas, or a coal plant but without the coal. It's got an energy source ... The fuel source is unlimited. You outlive the entire solar system with what we have right now, and equally distributed so you don't have to worry about finding the fuel and fighting over it and digging it up and moving it around and dealing with the effluence. It's just everywhere, and you need very little of it.
Bob Mumgaard: So it's got these huge advantages that look like other disruptive energy sources that we've had in the past, very high power density. Once you figure out how to build it, you go and you build a bunch of them. So it looks like it's a really attractive energy source, particularly in a world that needs disruptive energy.
Jason Jacobs: So it was the ability ... If someone could have a breakthrough and make fusion commercially viable, that it would be a lever bigger than any other lever that you could see?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah, that's right. I think, A, I'm a fan of all carbon free energy. I think that we should do all of it, but I don't think we know today that we have the solution in hand. So we shouldn't stop looking for big levers. Fusion is definitely one of those big levers, but only if you can make it, I think as you alluded to, relevant commercially on the right time scale. That was the big hurdle that we faced as a group in finding the way to do that. We happened to, after a long time of looking, find what we thought was a really, really good way to accelerate it.
Jason Jacobs: So when we say big lever, I guess, just help quantify that to the extent that you can. So energy is 60% of total emissions. So in the success scenario for fusion, how big of a dent could it actually make on the problem?
Bob Mumgaard: So if you look at ... Maybe run it back historically, and ask yourself the question, what has made the biggest dents on energy in the history of humanity? Well, France, they took their entire electricity market from what was essential coal and gas to nuclear power. Eighty percent of their energy comes from nuclear power today, and they did that in about 15 years. So when you have a technology that basically means you can build it in a factory, you can install it 100 megawatts plus at a time, basically, put 100 megawatts on the back of a truck, drive it out and drop it down somewhere, or go out and build a gigawatt in a Walmart parking lot, that's a super, super disruptive technology, because it's very scalable. It puts a lot of power down all at once wherever you put it.
Bob Mumgaard: The next fastest someone has done something is the US nuclear power, where you go forward from 1957. The first time we ever built anything out of nuclear power, a shipping port in Pennsylvania, and we were able to put 20% of our energy from nuclear power in a couple of decades [inaudible 00:10:15] 20%. Well, 20% in the United States is a lot of power. We're struggling to get to those penetrations on energy use with renewables now after we've been at it for several decades. So for fusion, it looks a lot like that nuclear power in terms of its deployability, or gas which is doing it today in terms of deployability, which makes it really attractive.
Jason Jacobs: So does that mean, upon success, you could think of it as maybe taking a large chunk of that 60, or would it get beyond the 60 potentially?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. Upon the success, because it's a carbon free, dispatchable, firm heat source, it means that you could use it to generate electricity. That's what everyone usually thinks of. But, also, you could use it to do industrial heat, so like desalination or base processing and chemical processing. So it has the potential to take very large portions of the entire energy market and thus the emissions market. I think as you look at strategies that people are doing to combat emissions, you see that most of those strategies rely on shifting processes into the energy market, so shifting things, and particularly into electricity. So how do you take something that is, say, like steel making, and instead of using the existing ways to do it, how do you use electricity to make steel, which shifts the problem from the steel factory to the power plant that produces electricity? So in a world that's doing that, any energy source that looks like fusion has the potential to take a big chunk of it, particularly where it's not bounded by geography or access to resources, as opposed to ... We can only install so many more dams before we run out of places to put dams. We can only take so much space before we run out of places to put turbines and solar plants.
Jason Jacobs: So before we get into timelines and scientific risk and economic risk, if we're just looking at its potential, how does it compare to something like nuclear, for example? I mean, I should caveat with I suspect that a bunch of our listeners are like I was before I became an expert. No, I'm far from an expert still, but I know a little bit more than I did five months ago when I started. But I think, to many people, fission and fusion are interchangeable. But as somebody working in the field, I know that you would say that that's actually not true at all. So what are the biggest differences?
Bob Mumgaard: Oh, yeah, it's basically exactly opposite. So in a nuclear power plant, you load it up with a bunch of heavy metals that you've got to go find, which are uranium. You then split those atoms to smaller atoms and, in the process, release energy. But then you're left with these smaller atoms that are unstable, and they sit there. That's nuclear waste. You do that in a way that is a chain reaction, where, if you don't control it right, it either peters out, but it doesn't actually shut off very fast, so it can melt down. Or if you don't control the other direction, it runs away, and it's a bomb. That stuff that you make and put in your reactor, you've got to keep track of for 100 million years, or not quite 100, but for a very, very long time for the waste side. For the fuel side, you've got to keep track of it, because if someone diverts it, they can make a bomb out of it. That's nuclear power in a nutshell. I think nuclear power needs to be on the table, needs to be part of this conversation, because the upside is you make a lot, a lot of carbon free electricity, and it's a technology we know how to make today. But-
Jason Jacobs: Wait, so that's the upside. What's the downside of nuclear?
Bob Mumgaard: One downside is it's a technology people don't understand. There's a fear factor to it, and that means that we can't deploy it. If you were to say is there a technical reason we're not deploying nuclear power today, there's not a technical reason. There's economic reasons in some places, but it's definitely a technology that, from a technology standpoint, makes carbon free electricity with very low impact on the environment and on human health. There's all sorts of studies that show that.
Jason Jacobs: So is most of the downside then on the fission side due to misinformation and misunderstandings? Or are there true downsides?
Bob Mumgaard: There are definitely true downsides. I think the difference between the downside and nuclear power versus the downside and carbon is the downsides in nuclear power are very acute. They happen to a small number of people in a very scary way all at once, like a Fukushima or a Chernobyl, whereas the downsides of carbon is very, very dispersed. It happens to everybody, and it happens slowly.
Jason Jacobs: It affects a lot more people.
Bob Mumgaard: People have a very non-linear response to risk. We, just as a species, don't handle chronic risk that well, but we're pretty good at making sure that we don't get eaten by the lion.
Jason Jacobs: Before we switch gears and talk about fusion, I think I heard you say that you believe that fission should be ... Proliferating is not the right word, but being deployed as much as possible.
Bob Mumgaard: Well, certainly, we shouldn't be shutting down plants that are safe today and producing carbon free electricity. That doesn't make any sense.
Jason Jacobs: The big light-water reactors [crosstalk 00:15:08]
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. Should we be building more big light-water reactors? Well, I think there's probably better options even within nuclear power, but we shouldn't be shutting down the ones that, today, really, are the largest producers of carbon free electricity in the United States.
Jason Jacobs: Now tell me about fusion, and I promise I won't stop you this time.
Bob Mumgaard: No, no. So fusion, what you're doing is you're at the other end of the periodic table. So you're at the end of the table that's got the hydrogen and helium, the really light end. You're combining hydrogen up into helium, which the waste product is actually helium. It's the most stable, safest element in the universe. The fuel is not these heavy things you've got to go find. It's isotopes of hydrogen that are in the oceans and water and everywhere. There's no chain reaction, so you don't have the ability for this thing to go uncontrolled, because it's like fueling your automobile. If you shut off the fuel source, it shuts down.
Jason Jacobs: So safer and less waste?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. So the actual output of the fuel cycle, the waste, is helium. In that case, it's not even ... I don't even know how you qualify helium as a waste. The other part of it too on the safer is there's no meltdown. You don't have a system that you can't shut off, so Fukushima, you can't shut it down. You've just got to keep putting water in. It's inherent to those systems. In fusion, if you want to shut it down, all you've got to do is blow on it. Literally, in a fusion system, a single breath of air is enough to shut it down, dead stop.
Jason Jacobs: It's like a birthday cake?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah, exactly. Well, like a birthday cake but 100 million degrees inside a vacuum that's all super fragile. If you let in any leak, you won't be able to get the 100 million degrees anymore.
Jason Jacobs: Maybe not quite like a birthday cake.
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. I mean, if you look at it, it kind of has a glow. So those are really great. You can't make a bomb out of it, so you don't have to worry about people taking stuff and making a bomb out of it. But at the same time, it's got the power density of nuclear power.
Jason Jacobs: So similar energy density from one to the other?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. If you think about energy density, it's like imagine we're sitting here. We're talking, right? We're in this building. It's full of materials. We're wearing clothes, I assure everybody.
Jason Jacobs: There's no video, so you can't actually prove that, Bob.
Bob Mumgaard: Right. We got here in vehicle. We're using all this energy in our life, right? If I were to add up all the energy that I'm going to use in my life ... Let's assume I’m going to live to my [inaudible 00:17:31] age, the amount of fusion fuel that I would need is the size of a Nalgene bottle. Can you imagine you go through your entire life and your material impact on the world from energy is something you can carry with you? You compare that to cool: My entire impact on the world on coal, my portion of coal, if I got all my energy from coal ... which we live in New England, got nuclear power, so we don't, and gas and the renewables. If I were to get it all from coal, you're talking about dump trucks after dump trucks after dump trucks. You're talking 200 million times more stuff than if I got it from fusion. So that's a much different way to think about energy, just like renewables was a very different way to think about energy than oil and gas and coal, this idea that you build something and you collect what nature gives you. In fusion, it's you build something, and you don't even have to collect what nature gives you. You just build it. It's show up, build the plant, and it effectively powers cities from almost nothing.
Jason Jacobs: One of the knocks that I heard on fission, at least here in the US, is that it requires these big construction projects and that, for whatever reason, the US used to be able to build big stuff, and now we suck at it. So, I guess, one, do you agree with that statement? Two, does that apply in the fusion world as well?
Bob Mumgaard: First, yeah, I think that statement is empirically backed up. We've gotten worse in the United States at building big things. In some ways, the economies of scale were so acute in nuclear power, they wanted to go to really big systems, and those were systems that we could build in the '70s, '60s and manage all that, and, for some reason ... And people debate this, and I'm not really an expert in that debate. I watch the debate, and I say, oh, yeah, there's a debate there on why we can't build those things anymore. Other countries can. But one of the things that we've gotten really good at is building very, very high-value medium-scale things. So if you want to build jet turbines, the United States is a great place to build it, or airplanes.
Jason Jacobs: Is the distinction stuff that can be built in a factory versus on site?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah, that's right. In a controlled environment, we can do amazing things. If you go and you watch how ... Even go to the Gigafactory or Tesla and see them put the stuff together, or SpaceX or GE or Boeing, and like, oh, we're still pretty good at this. So if you can make power systems, any power system more like that, you've got a really good shot, because now you can control the cost. You can control the timelines. You can make ... Instead of economies of scale, how big can you make a single thing, you can do economies of multiples, how fast can you learn from making many. That's been a proven way to make better and better stuff. You use the example of wind. Wind has benefited from economies of multiples.
Bob Mumgaard: So in nuclear power, they want to do that by making the reactors smaller, small modular reactors, advanced reactors. In fusion, our play, particularly, is a similar idea. It's like, what can you do to make fusion smaller, both because of the economies that come with that, but also because of the speed that comes with that? If you want to develop something, what you really want to do is you want to figure out how to break it into smaller parts, go super, super fast iterating on those small parts, and, preferably, make the whole thing as small as possible so you can go as fast as possible so you can learn very quickly, learn from your mistakes, ideas that we see, basically, out of software and computers, but now being applied to hardware.
Jason Jacobs: So does that mean that, as you look at deploying fusion commercially in the years and decades to come, that you would maybe start in a small niche market and then work your way into the crown jewel down the road? How do you think about going to market? Also, how does that compare to ... Is that different competitor by competitor, if you look at the landscape of people that are working on fusion technology?
Bob Mumgaard: I'll answer the first part. So I think, yeah, you apply the same things that we've really learned and basically institutionalized out of tech, which is you find beachhead markets. You try to keep the scale small enough to be nimble and fast and learn. You attack those beachhead markets. You win them, and then you redeploy into bigger and bigger markets, learning as you go. You don't go and say, oh, I want the big kahuna, and [inaudible 00:21:51], and we're going to go and build a giant, giant thing that's going to cost billions of dollars. If it turns out to be a dud, we've lost not just the company, but maybe the entire technology. People don't do that anymore, and I think rightfully so. The way that we attack the world is to think about how to break fusion into as controllable problems as possible, and then retire the risk, the technical risk there, the understanding, as fast as possible, and integrate that up, and then find the first place to build a fusion system where it can provide some value, and then go from there.
Jason Jacobs: Have you gotten to that step yet, or does that come later?
Bob Mumgaard: It comes later. So, right now, the philosophy we're using is that philosophy where we're focusing on how to make fusion much smaller by using very strong magnets. Those magnets are things that we can build very quickly and we can test very quickly, with low consequence, and learn, and then make those magnets better and better and better. Then we put those magnets into the smallest fusion system we could ever make and learn what fusion looks like when it makes more power [inaudible 00:22:53], which has never happened on Earth. Stars, they make more power than it took to start them, but, on Earth, no one has ever made a fusion reaction that makes more power than it takes to start.
Jason Jacobs: What's the ... It's not acronym. It's like a letter that-
Bob Mumgaard: Q.
Jason Jacobs: Q, got it.
Bob Mumgaard: Gain, actually, if you're an audiophile.
Jason Jacobs: Is it greater than one [crosstalk 00:23:12]
Bob Mumgaard: Two greater than one, yeah. No one's done that yet.
Jason Jacobs: Oh, wow, I remember. This was a few months ago I was looking at that.
Bob Mumgaard: No one's done that, and so our goal is to do that as fast as possible, as small as possible, by using this magnet technology and this technology approach, really mindset. It's a mindset that you'd see at a software development project, but applied to hardware, which we're not the first to do. We didn't invent that. But it's a way to develop companies and hardware that have seen some success, particularly in the United States.
Jason Jacobs: So there's kind of a prove the science out piece first, and then there's a make sure you can build it and what the economics look like. Then is the next step then figure out what market to start in?
Bob Mumgaard: Yep, exactly. Where is the biggest risk in the whole system? Do that as fast and small as possible. Solve that risk, and then march on to the next biggest risk. Eventually, you've retired a whole bunch of risks, and people can look at it and say, oh, yeah, they've done something. They've created a bunch of value here, things that people have never done before.
Bob Mumgaard: If you look at it like SpaceX, so SpaceX wants to go to Mars. They could build a giant, giant ro- ... You could argue that, today, maybe they could get enough money to go build a giant rocket and go to Mars. But they didn't start that way. They didn't start out building a giant rocket. They started out building a rocket engine, because the risk was could a private company build a rocket engine. No private company had ever done that. They built the engine. They showed it worked.
Bob Mumgaard: The next risk was, well, could a private company organize themselves into being able to build a rocket? They didn't build a giant rocket; they built a small rocket, a rocket no one even remembers today. They blew it up three times, but every time they did it, they did it very fast, and they learned. Eventually, it worked. The next step was build a bigger rocket. Now, of course, they're building bigger and bigger rockets.
Bob Mumgaard: So that looks like what we're trying to do, but, in our case, it's not rockets. It's build magnets and then build a fusion system as small as possible, and then build a bigger fusion system that makes a bigger market, and then find the right market to attack, and go and win that market, and onward.
Jason Jacobs: But no company or team thus far has ever made it past that phase one science risk, correct?
Bob Mumgaard: Right, and that's one of the keys to our approach is fusion is like a testament to the government research R&D going all the way back to the Cold War, where we've had these research programs in the United States and the UK and Europe and Japan and all over that have really done a methodical job at compiling the science. They went out, and they built a bunch of machines. They built hundreds of machines, all different shapes and sizes, and tested them, and then took at the data and put all the data all together, and built simulation codes out of what the pen and pencil models said should work, and tested those simulation codes. They built up this huge treasure chest of all the science. Then, from that, they decided, oh, we're ready now to go build a giant experiment in France called ITER, which is the largest science experiment the world has ever seen. It's halfway through construction.
Jason Jacobs: For our listeners, that's I-T-E-R, isn't spelled how it sounds.
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. It's not nearly as tasty. It's Latin for "the way," which tells you their mindset. But it's a really impressive project. It's the largest construction project in Europe. So you say, okay, how important is climate? The holy grail energy source of fusion is now the largest construction project in Europe. That's something. In our case, we say, okay, all that science is great. Let's use it. Let's take it, and let's couple it to innovative models on how you innovate, we were just talking about, and couple it to some new technologies and a magnet, and don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Take that science, and take that next step from as high up on the staircase as possible. That's really what our approach is.
Bob Mumgaard: In many ways, you can look and say, well, no one's ever done it before, but that doesn't mean it's not going to happen. If you go and you look at flight, it wasn't that Wilbur and Orville Wright were out in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina and came from nothing. There was a huge community of people that were building gliders and that were doing aerodynamic experiments and publishing letters to each other. Wilbur and Orville took that and said, oh, this is maybe only one step removed from useful. Instead of throwing it all out, they put an engine on it. They road it like a bicycle. That's Kitty Hawk, similar to how we're trying to do things.
Jason Jacobs: What would you say to the skeptics out there? It seems to me that the people that are closest to it are ... I guess, one could call it a religion, right? There's a fervor to the people that are working on this problem that are convinced that we're right on the cusp. I think the outsiders, especially maybe some of your fission counterparts, would say, yeah, that's how they've been. We're 10 years away, and we'll be 10 years away 300 years from now.
Bob Mumgaard: It's a rightful criticism, right? You're not there until you're there, arguably, but it ignores the progress that's been made. So although it might not look like progress to, say, a layperson, if you're close to it, it looks like progress. The figures of merit for fusion actually have increased faster than Moore's law. It just so happens that the figures of merit need to get past a barrier before ... not really a barrier, but past a threshold before they become useful. So it's easy to look in a field and say there's no progress until all of a sudden there's progress.
Bob Mumgaard: So take an example like right now. If you look at AI and you say, oh, man, AI is transforming everything, well, the actual algorithms and things in AI, that whole field goes back 40 years. I mean, it goes back to down the street from where we're talking to the labs in the '50s and '60s at MIT, where neural networks were worked on. Most of the approaches that we take today were there. They systematically built up that intellectual foundation. Now that we have a world that's got so much data and so cheap computing power, it suddenly made their thing useful. So it looks like it just showed up out of nowhere, but it didn't. Technologies don't just show up out of nowhere. They systematically derisk themselves and eventually find the last piece that opens a useful market. Then all of a sudden it's like, oh, look, it's a huge discovery.
Jason Jacobs: It's like it's always darkest before the dawn, right?
Bob Mumgaard: Exactly, yeah.
Jason Jacobs: When people have finally given up all hope is when the breakthrough happens.
Bob Mumgaard: Those that watch it really well, they realize that the sun's just over the horizon, or at least they have an idea of how far it is.
Jason Jacobs: The way that some people have explained to me the fusion landscape, it seems like there's two vectors that need to happen in order for this technology to be commercially viable. One is that the science needs to work, and the other is that it needs to work in a cost-effective way. The math needs to work. What I've heard is that, the more science risk, the more attractive the economics will be if you get it right, and the less science risk, the worse the economics will be when you get it right, and that if you look at the different competitors how are vying to tackle this, some are positioned with high science risk and great economics if it works. Others are the opposite. Do you look at the market the same way?
Bob Mumgaard: I think that it's a good observation. Basically, the observation here is that, in a world full of uncertainty, the top end looks great. If you are a long way from your goal, your extrapolations can be super, super optimistic. Whereas the cold, hard facts that come from building things are the stuff the economics are made out of. The closer and closer you get to knowing what you need to build, the more and more your economics look realistic. So we're on that end of the spectrum, where it's like, let's minimize the extrapolations we do in the science, which means we know pretty close to what we need to build, and we can cost it. That costing can't be optimistic, because it's based on things we've built.
Jason Jacobs: So do you worry more than about being cost competitive than you do about the science?
Bob Mumgaard: For us, yeah. So, A, from a philosophical standpoint, you want to solve climate? The way you solve climate is you make a cost-effective energy source, a rapidly deployable anywhere in the world, cost-effective energy source. That's how you solve climate. That cost-effectiveness, that's something, luckily, that oftentimes can be within your control, particularly when you have a really, really, high-power density system, because you can control how much material you need to build it and how fancy the material is and where you put the material. You have to engineer cost-competitiveness into the system, which is a lot different than a fuel. If you have a system that needs a fuel, the cost of the fuel is set by other things outside your control, and that's your irreducible cost.
Bob Mumgaard: So we spent a lot of time really early in our process thinking, okay, how does this look if you need to make 10,000 of these? Which of these components is going to be able to be cheap in the future? Which of these components is never going to be cheap? When we design things, that's where our head is in order make sure that we're cost competitive.
Jason Jacobs: Of course, cost competitive depends on compared to what? For example, if I were building in-home geothermal as an example, I might be more cost competitive in a market that is competing with oil than one that's competing with natural gas.
Bob Mumgaard: Oh, yeah. Or take extremes. You go to Northern Norway, and what does cost competitive look like in Northern Norway? A, well, there's no solar, right? The sun sets for long periods of time, but the actual cost competitive technology up there is hydro. You can get 2 cents a kilowatt hour of hydro all day long in Northern Norway. But you go to Singapore. So Singapore's on the equator. It turns out you can't put solar panels in Singapore because it's cloudy most of the days, and Singapore's too small, and it's too dense, and it takes too much power. You can't put wind, because there's no wind in the tropics. So they use gas. It's an island. They're paying 18 cents a kilowatt hour. So here you've got two extremes with a factor of nine in what the cost of electricity is. That's true geographically. It's true time of day, in a place like California, with even just the modest solar penetration in the total energy market that California has. So at the end of the day, energy is a spot market. It's where you're using it, when you're using it, and what else are the viable alternatives. So it gives a lot of opportunity for beachhead markets for lowering the cost as you learn things like that.
Jason Jacobs: I know you said you're not there yet. But any early intuition about where that beachhead market might be for you?
Bob Mumgaard: It's too early. I think, for fusion, first, we've got to get the science right. If you don't get the science right, you don't have a technology you can even sell. So science and engineering ... We think we've got the science now, but we actually have to show it. We have to demonstrate it. We've got to build stuff. When we talk about skeptics, the way that we find that you handle skeptics is not through talk, it's through actually building things. So come back, see what we build. A year later, see what we build. A year later, see what we build. You could debate all day long early in SpaceX whether or not they were ever going to build the largest rocket. But if you sat there and you watched them build rockets, you'd be like, oh, man, this has got some momentum. They say they're going to build something, and they go and they build it, and it works.
Bob Mumgaard: For us, that's the same mentality. Don't design stuff on paper and argue about paper designs. Go build magnets in a lab. Test them till you know how they work, and destroy them even, and then do it again. Make it better and better and better, and then build fusion devices, which we have at MIT, where we came out. The team used to run and upgrade and operate and build the world record setting plasma confinement system. So that's how we think you ... the right order to attack things and how to respond to critics.
Jason Jacobs: Would you give me that same answer if we have a few beers in us and no microphones on?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah, I think so. I'm a pretty straightforward guy.
Jason Jacobs: And I'm only joking. That's one of the things I love about you, Bob, is I do feel like, when we talk, microphones are not that ... What you see is what you get. So can we talk a little bit about the timeline? So you mentioned the three phases, the science and then the cost and then the market. So what does that look like in terms of when ... What's the best case for your internal targets? Whatever you use when you think about dates for being ready to deploy.
Bob Mumgaard: Put on the granularity, right? So right now, today, we were really bummed out because a test date that was in a facility that is in a different country slipped by four days, like, oh, this is disastrous. It is for our program. We care about a day. If you're in the climate world, you should care about a day, although it's a bit odd for some of the other fusion, say the government research programs. They can slip a day and not even notice. But, for us, we're on track. We've been going for a year, just under a year. Two years from now, we intend to have demonstrated at full spec the magnet that you need to make small fusion power plants, with the existing science we already understand about fusion. So no extrapolations [crosstalk 00:35:59]
Jason Jacobs: So within two years of checking the science box-
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: ... which has never been done before.
Bob Mumgaard: Well, two years particularly from checking this technology box on a really, really high field magnet that the scientific consensus says, if you had that magnet, then the rest of the science is significantly easier.
Jason Jacobs: Then you need to go and do the rest, but at least you can say that you have the magnet, which no one's been able to bring to bear on this problem to date.
Bob Mumgaard: Right. You've shown, hey, look, I went, and I built this super, super high-leverage tool. It's so high leverage that it means that I don't have to rely on other things working out my way. I can be super, super conservative on everything else, not extrapolate, keep within the bounds the world's already seen, but apply this big new tool to it. That's the magnet, and that's two years. Once we're there, then it becomes time to apply that tool. That's to go build a machine that looks like the machines we've built before, just that very high magnetic field that's at sufficiently high performance to make more power than in, and we want to do that in a machine we call Spark by 2025.
Bob Mumgaard: So if you think about in Kitty Hawk, the Wright Brothers, they needed an engine, an internal combustion engine. That's our magnet. Then they needed to put it on a glider that had already existed. That's tokamaks, which is our style of fusion machine. Then you've got to pull all that together at a sufficiently robust scale that you can look and say you've got something. You've got to remember, the Wright Brothers flew for 12 seconds. They didn't fly across the Atlantic, but it was a person on a machine, flying for 12 seconds, controlled. That was enough to say flight has arrived. So our version of that we want to do by 2025.
Jason Jacobs: I love these corollaries, by the way. I mean, these are really helpful for framing, and it's clear that I'm speaking to someone who's well-practiced at raising a lot of money.
Bob Mumgaard: Well, my passion is not raising money. That's my dispassion, but my passion's really history technology and how we can solve problems.
Jason Jacobs: Part of your graduate research, right?
Bob Mumgaard: That's right, yeah, fellowships and studying that. I think that's a really important skill just in general to understand how the technologies we use every day first got from, oh, that's impossible, no one's ever going to do that, or why would anyone even want to do that, to absolutely required for modern living.
Jason Jacobs: So then if you hit that 2025 target, is there another phase that we didn't talk about yet? What does that look like?
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. So after 2025 is really the first commercial deployment. So the 2025 system is all the pieces you need, but you're not yet putting yourself into the we must generate electricity every day out of this machine at a cost-competitive point. We've released that pressure from that machine to show that we have all the science and engineering right, and get the first look at the economics, but not actually promise to show up at a customer site with that machine in 2025. That's the next machine, which would be as quickly as possible after that.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So, I guess, coming back around, since you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation that climate was really what pulled you into working on the fusion problem. So I'm sure a bunch of our listeners have heard or read the IPCC report that talks about 12 years to act and our carbon budget and how far behind we are and how emissions rose last year and things like that. So given the timelines that we're talking about, and that's upon the success scenario ... Whenever you're doing anything that's breakthrough, oftentimes the success scenario ends up being optimistic. So what makes you feel like this is ... Even if this can have an impact, what makes you feel like it's a worthy pursuit given the timelines that we need anything to have an impact within?
Bob Mumgaard: It's a scary thing, climate, right? The fact that emissions continue to rise is one of the reasons that we need to do things like fusion. The idea that we have this solution in hand today, I think, is not true. Then you say, well, what if we don't have this solution? Oh, well, we need to do everything we can, even if it might be backend loaded, to be able to recover as fast as possible from a climate catastrophe. The IPCC is right. It needs to peak and then start to come back down as soon as possible. It also says it needs to go to zero carbon emission, and it needs to go negative. You look at the types of technologies we have to get to that level of deep decarbonization, we just don't have those technologies today. Even if the technologies on the drawing boards that we need to be able to, say, suck carbon out of the air to make the planet habitable ... which, in the IPCC scenarios, you actually do need to do something that goes negative carbon.
Jason Jacobs: And not just something, a lot [crosstalk 00:40:42]
Bob Mumgaard: A lot!
Jason Jacobs: They don't know what it is or how we're going to do it.
Bob Mumgaard: I know one thing. It's going to take a lot of power, and it's going to take things like fusion and energy sources that can go 24 hours a day at high power intensity to be able to do that. So from our timeline, if you look at the build out rate for nuclear power after they first got it to work in the US or France and you were to apply that to our timeline, you meet or exceed the mid-level IPCC reports, which says this is not something that's too late. This could be something that's super, super important. If we're late, that's why every day counts. If we're late, it's not just our technology that could be hosed. If someone else doesn't step up to the plate, it means that other people could be hosed. Lots of people could be hosed, so you don't want that situation. Our team has been given a unique opportunity both from a technology standpoint, from a science standpoint, from the people that we've gathered around us, the financing standpoint. It'd be a real shame to waste that opportunity, thinking that someone else is going to solve this big problem.
Jason Jacobs: Well, I'll tell you one thing I wholeheartedly I agree with, which is just your perspective that, even though you've been making a compelling case for why fusion should exist and we should all be rooting for it, you're also rooting for everything else, where I think too often I'm seeing that people have religion around one solution being better than others, and therefore it should exist instead of. I just don't think we're in an instead of mode.
Bob Mumgaard: Yeah. I don't think energy is an instead of mode. You look. You say, okay, in your energy breakdown, some fraction of it comes from oil, right? So, okay, oil, there's some fraction of those companies that are publicly traded companies. Those companies are all some of the biggest companies in the world. This is a huge, huge market. Energy is the biggest market in the world. It's probably the biggest market humanity has ever created or ever will create. The idea that we need to think of it as zero sum, especially at the time when energy is at the root of existential crisis for the planet, it's not a zero sum. If we have multiple ways to solve the carbon problem, we're doing great as a species.
Jason Jacobs: My last question for you, Bob, is just, for anyone that's been listening that's still with us, because we've been talking forever, but that's been persuaded that fusion should exist and now they're actively rooting for it, what should they do? How can they help?
Bob Mumgaard: Obviously, not everyone should go and become a plasma physicist. We need those, but we've got some. But there's lots of different ways to help. One, if you're a great engineer and like to build stuff, come join us. Come out to Cambridge. See our stuff. Let’s talk. We need great engineers, and not just in fusion, other energy technologies.
Jason Jacobs: Podcasters as well, or just engineers?
Bob Mumgaard: Well, I was going to say there's other skills, right? We've managed to put together what I think is a fantastic team of people that are not people you would usually see around fusion, people that are great at communicating, people that are great at messaging. If you're going to build an entire new industry, you've got to make sure you get that industry off on the right foot and make that so that people can understand what it is that you're doing and value what you're doing. That's part of the solution. Even skills that you would not think of as sci-fi, hard skills that would be applicable to the bat cave, which is one of the things where fusion shows up, those skills are still absolutely required.
Jason Jacobs: Great. Well, I could easily keep peppering you with questions, because I feel like there's a lot of ground that we haven't yet covered. But for the sake of the sanity of our listeners, I think we should call it a day. But you've been a really good sport, a terrific guest. Bob Mumgaard, thank you for coming on the show.
Bob Mumgaard: Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on my climate journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at MyClimateJourney.co. Note that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com, but right now .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. Before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.